By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Ten weeks before the start of the Olympics, Tokyo remains in a state of emergency, 60% of the Japanese people do not want the Olympics to go ahead, and only around 3% of them have been vaccinated for COVID-19.
Yet the message from the International Olympic Committee, local organisers and the Japanese government has been consistent — full speed ahead to the opening ceremony on July 23.
Their stance might appear counter-intuitive to those still struggling with daily deaths and hardship caused by the pandemic, but there has been a noticeable lack of dissent from the sporting community.
That is a contrast to last year when the voices of athletes and sports officials were at the forefront of a groundswell of opinion that led to a 12-month delay for the Games.
With IOC President Thomas Bach having made it clear another postponement is not an option, cancellation would be the only alternative to proceeding.
That, according to Olympic swimming gold medallist Rebecca Adlington, would be “devastating” for athletes.
“The athletes dedicate their lives to something that only happens every four years, it’s now been five and if it got cancelled, (they) will have to wait another three,” the Briton told Reuters.
“That’s thousands of athletes that will miss out on the opportunity to represent their country and win medals. It’s been five years of hard work, pushing their body to the limit.”
IOC data shows that around 80% of athletes only appear in one Olympics during their careers — careers that in some sports will be done and dusted in the eight years between the 2016 Rio Games and the 2024 gathering in Paris.
Athletes have apparently not been put off by the conditions they are scheduled to compete under in Tokyo, where the threat of the Olympics turning into a “superspreader” event means isolation, regular COVID-19 testing, and possibly no crowds.
Foreign fans have already been banned while a decision on domestic crowds is expected in June. There were no spectators when Sebastian Coe, the head of World Athletics and former Olympic champion, witnessed a dry-run for the health precautions at a test event in Tokyo last weekend.
“I speak to the athletes all the time,” he said.
“The vast majority of athletes … are understanding that it will not be the type of Games they’ve experienced before … but they still know they would rather be here than sit out the dance. It’s important for them.”
World champion sprinter Noah Lyles, who is hoping to compete at his first Games, said he was not overly concerned about his own health.
“I got vaccinated pretty early,” the American told Reuters.
“Now that the vaccine is a lot more accessible to people in the world, it gives me more security that going into the Olympics, it will be safer and we won’t have too many issues.
“Of course everyone is taking those extra precautions to make sure we don’t have to deal with it.”
Japanese tennis players Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori last weekend did voice concerns about the Games, urging “discussion” over the potential impact of 10,000 athletes descending on their country.
Tennis is one of the few sports where an Olympic medal is not the most prestigious prize in the game, however, and it is the less high profile athletes who have most to lose from the cancellation of the Games.
British climber Shauna Coxsey, whose sport is scheduled to make its debut in Tokyo, said her desire to compete at the Games had only been intensified by the postponement.
“The wait has made people more apprehensive but in a good way, more people are longing to go and get involved,” she told Reuters.
“I think the togetherness of the Olympics and the fact that it breaks down so many boundaries and is a beacon of hope in some regard, with the delay it has heightened the feeling about what the Games means.”
New Zealand men’s rugby sevens coach Clark Laidlaw said that, while he understood reservations, he thought holding the Games could be a ray of light in dark times.
“I genuinely think if it is safe, and Japan thinks it’s safe, then it’s a real opportunity for people to inspire others who are in a really tough situation,” he told Reuters.
American academic Jules Boykoff, in an opinion piece for the New York Times on Tuesday, called for the cancellation of the Games.
“The situation is crude but clear: Olympic organisers are not willing to sacrifice their profits for public health,” he wrote.
It is a familiar criticism of the IOC, who receive billions of dollars from TV rights and sponsorships for the Games, but one wholly rejected by Vice President John Coates.
“If we were doing that, we would have pushed ahead with them last year. We didn’t,” the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) president said last weekend.
“I don’t want these kids to miss the one opportunity they have in their lifetime. We’re doing it so these kids can fulfil their dreams.”
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, additional reporting by Chris Gallagher in Tokyo, Ian Ransom in Melbourne, Rory Carroll in Los Angeles, Martyn Herman in London and Joseph Walker in Madrid; editing by Peter Rutherford)